Discuss how concepts of fatherhood and motherhood have changed over time

The role of mother’s and father’s it seems are constantly changing in our society and is individual to each family. In this essay I will attempt to gain a view of the concepts of both fatherhood and motherhood throughout history, however I will focus mainly on modern development. With regards modern issues I will be looking at the concept of the ‘new dad’, surrogate mothers and lone parent families and how concepts of motherhood and fatherhood have changed over time.

It is important to note that with regards looking back over history it is very easy to generalize and a lot of our information about fatherhood and motherhood in previous times is from middle class white families and this is not necessarily the norm for the whole society. Just as I have raised many modern issues there were equally as many issues in other time periods, gaining evidence of these and studying them becomes more difficult though as we have little material to work with.

Similarly there is a difference between the concept of motherhood and fatherhood and the reality, there are idealized conceptions of these roles and there are the realities and I will be conscious of this difference in the essay. I will start with looking at the relationship between the two concepts of motherhood and fatherhood before I track their changes through history. The language that we use when referring to mothers and fathers and the respective roles that they play can be used when trying to understand these concepts.

Chodorow (1978) puts forward the thought that we can speak of both men and women as ‘mothering’ a child, showing that being a mother is not only about bearing a child its is about nurturing and socializing that child. In many societies extended families may help mother a child, or children can be adopted and even men can be talked of as ‘mothering’ a child. However we would only talk about a man as ‘fathering’ a child, even in a lesbian couple family one of the partners would not be talked of as fathering the child but only as being it’s social father. It would seem that fathering is more a biological term.

Similarly Laquer (1990) puts forward Chesler’s idea from an article in Ms (May: 1998) that motherhood is a ‘fact’ and a different category from fatherhood that it is argued is an idea. Laquer (1990) puts forward the thought that motherhood is a fact because the role it plays is seen as essential for a child whereas the fatherhood is only an idea. Coltrane (1997) similarly says “To speak of mothering implies ongoing care and nurturing of the child. Fathering, on the other hand, has typically implied an initial sex act and the financial obligation to pay. (Coltrane, 1997, p4)

The language we use therefore with regards motherhood and fatherhood can have an effect what we consider to be their essential concepts. It is very difficult to trace accurately the concepts of parenthood before more recent times because of the bias of history. Most historical reports are from the perspective of the white, middle and upper class western family so therefore portray their bias. Most of the historical evidence we have is also from this group of society, so when I attempt to portray the concepts of parenthood through time there are obvious difficulties.

As the concepts of parenthood are inextricably linked with the concept of the family, I may also reference the history of the family as way of discovering more about the central issues. If we look at the bioevolutionay approach stated in Chodorow (1978) it attempts to assert why women mother and men traditionally became hunters. They put forward the view that because of early life expectancy and rate of infancy death most women spent all of their childbearing years pregnant in order to carry on the population.

Thus physically it wasn’t practical for women to go out hunting so they were left to gather small foods and look after the children already produced. However as Chodorow (1978) points out that this theory only works in a society that is still small in population size, where social organization is simple and gaining basic provisions was problematic. As society developed this basic argument was no longer applicable as women no longer needed to spend all of their childbearing years pregnant. As history progressed the concept of feudalism rose and a patriarchal society was firmly established.

In these households the father was the head of the family and status was inherited via blood ties to the father. Women at this time had no legal rights and it was the father who was responsible for the family, servants, local tenants and peasants in his land. Engels (1972) argues that the family as a unit arose around this time mainly as an economic unit. As society began to produce a surplus of products that their community did not need the family arose as a way of means of control and a way of determining the subsequent inheritance.

It is in this family form then that concept of parenthood arose, what we can determine about motherhood is that they were the nurturers of the children, yet in many peasant families the women worked as well as the men on the land. The role of the father seems to be solely about setting example and leading his unit to economic success. As time went by new practices came into force and production began to take place in the home something that the mother would supervise while the father went out to work. Slowly two separate spheres of influence were developing those in the home and those outside of it.

Women were still responsible for child rearing and maintenance of the household. However the mother was responsible for training the girls and the father was responsible for training the boys. This is an example of socialization and many feminist writers argue that role training or cognitive learning by the mother of the daughter is one of the factors that attributes to the continued practice of mothering by women. Chodorow (1978) presents this idea in her work but whilst seeing it as valuable denies that it is a sufficient explanation for why women perpetuate the concept of motherhood.

This is the general view of parenthood pre industrialization and capitalism. With the change in production and the shift away from the home, the two separate spheres of the public and private become even clearer. Women’s domain was seen to be the private sphere at home and men’s domain was seen to be the public sphere of business and politics. The role of the mother was now reduced solely to care giving for both their husbands and children as they were now less responsible for the production in the home.

The emphasis in parenthood shifted onto a more personal footing, especially as religious ideas were given a new impetus. In the BBC online resource (Abrahms, L, 2001 [online]) it shows Queen Victoria as the model mother as “an icon of late 19th century feminity and domesticity” (Abrahms, L, 2001 [online]). Motherhood was portrayed as a vocation for which all women were destined, and if they chose to rebut this then they became deviants of society, as motherhood was the pinnacle achievement for women.

Increasingly, as society began to develop a social conscious, motherhood also meant women had a great social role in bringing up healthy happy children. The introduction of schools and external childcare solutions began to revolutionize motherhood. With more time available to them and the role of educating their children slipping away from them women turned to the public sphere to occupy themselves. Also as medicine and living conditions improved infant mortality rate fell and women began to have fewer children.

However it is really the event of two world wars, which leads to the most dramatical change in the role of women and therefore the concept of both fatherhood and motherhood. Women were needed to work while men went away to fight in both world wars. The world wars also left many women widowed and children fatherless due to the sheer number of deaths. There was a significant lack of men of a certain age group due to the wars and many women now had to provide for their families, so going to work was inevitable. In the 20th Century there were many issues with effected and revolutionized the concept of parenthood.

Most notably there is the rise in women’s rights and feminism, women were given the right to vote in 1918 and gradually gained access to all areas of work and education. The role of the traditional family began to deviate with the ease of divorce and the consequential decline in marriage. In 1923 women were allowed to use the same terms as men for divorce and in 1969 ‘irretrievable’ breakdown was introduced as a term for divorce, this meant that whilst in 1961 there were 27,224 divorces the figure doubled in 1969 to 55,556 cases of divorce, and then again by 1972 to 124,556 (National Statistics [online]).

Consequently the marriage rate has been on the decline since, the number of first time marriages peaked in 1970 with 340,000 marriages but in 2001 this reached an all time low at less than half of that to 158,560(National Statistics [online]). This has meant an increase in the number of lone parent families; in 2004 1 in 4 children were in lone families compared to 1 in 14 in 1972 (National Statistics [online]). There have been medical advances that have influenced the concept of parenthood. The introduction of the pill in 1961 meant women now had a choice about whether they became mothers and when they became mothers.

The pill’s popularity can be seen by the fact that between 1962 and 1969 users rose from 50,000 to 1 million in the UK alone and the figure at the moment stands at approximately 11 million women who use the pill alone not counting the other forms of contraception that have become available. Artificial insemination was the other major medical breakthrough that has affected the concepts of parenthood with the first test tube baby being born in July 1978 artificial insemination has since led to issues such as surrogate mothers and insemination by donor.

The case of Baby M in 1987 was one of the widely publicized cases of surrogate motherhood and the issues involved with this. I will look first at the issue of surrogate mothers and how they affect the concept of motherhood. Due to the rise of infertility in our society contract motherhood has become a way of easing the pain for many couples that want to have babies. However Gibson (1994) critiques this social practice and makes some interesting points about our materialistic society, which has come to see human beings more and more as commodities.

It has been argued that women have more control over their bodies than ever before but Gibson (1994) puts forward the view that women increasingly are loosing this control especially with regards childbirth as mothers are being controlled by the fathers or doctors wishes on abortion, fetal surgery and childbirth. Gibson (1994) states “there is a strong and arguably growing tendency for physicians and judges to regard pregnant women as simply ‘the fetal environment’ and sometimes a hostile environment from which the fetus must be protected. (Gibson, 1994, p403)

From this clinical view the child itself can be seen as an object which can be owned or bought and in what can be seen as a prenatal and family led society which attempts to reinforce the so called ideals of the traditional family owning such a child is apparently essential for happiness.. In the Baby M case however the surrogate mother after giving birth and holding her child was unable to go through with handing the child over. Similarly occasions where donors want access to a child can be seen in the case of Mary K and Jhordan in 1978, that Laquer (1990) comments on.

Jhordan as a friend of a lesbian couple donated sperm in an informal agreement for the couple to have a child. Once this child was born though Jhordan wanted a role in the child’s life. This new technology causes problems as an extra person is brought into the parent equation in many cases. This causes problems socially as religious and government ideals still want us to hark back to the days of the supposed ideal of the nuclear family, but now we have a three-parent family.

As with divorce in many surrogate or donor cases gaining ownership of the child becomes all-important. The battle that ensues in contract motherhood cases can amount to who puts in more to the baby physically the mother of the father, as we see in the case of Baby M. However as concepts motherhood and fatherhood cannot be reduced down to biology, they are about nurturing and caring for a child in both an emotional and physical sense.

The divide as well between the concept of motherhood and fatherhood seems to be shifting as men even as donors want to become more involved and women as surrogate mothers seem to be content with not being involved with offspring. Coltrane (1997) highlights this in his example of Gary and Susan Carter, he uses Chodorow’s (1978) suggestion that the ability to nurture is present in both girls and boys but men suppress this as an attempt to maintain the masculinity and the example of the Carters to show that Motherhood and Fatherhood are not so dissimilar in the 20th century.

Although the Carter’s equal split of work and childcare met with negative responses from the social world, as a family it worked for them. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century there does seem to be a rise in the contribution of the father to the family, Smith (1995) looks at the ‘Children of the 90’s’ study and it shows an increase in father’s care of their babies between 1950 and 1990.

Similarly in line with the example of the Carters the study also shows an increase in the employment of mothers, however in many of the cases studied unlike the Carters it was not the father who then took over childcare but a female relative or childcare organization. However this is only one outlook on fatherhood we cannot ignore the fact that 1 in 4 children live in lone parent families and 22% of children in families live in a single mother family (National Statistics [online]).

The image of the absent father is one that has been paraded by the media, and the idea of holding the father financially responsible for any children he produces has become a state issue with the rise of the child support agency. Each parent’s experience as a lone parent is different there are those who are alone through choice, through divorce or separation, or because of the death of a partner, however none can deny that being a lone parent can have a strain on the parent child relationship for financial and emotional reasons.

Although in society all lone parents are demonized as being a drain on state resources and morally wrong in many cases for both parent and child, despite the negative aspects, it can be better for them to be lone parent family. Shaw (1991) states from her studies that “Most women do maintain that there is still a stigma attached to the label of ‘lone parent'” (1991, 155) however they do consider that this is the best option and are wary of remarrying to form the traditional family unit.

The concepts of motherhood and fatherhood are such vast subjects that it would be impossible for me to consider the subject at any other than a brief level. However I feel I have explored some of the issues from time and some modern issues surrounding the concepts and tried to display the varying forms of parenthood. We each come to this issue though with out own emotional baggage from our own families making it that much harder a subject to consider objectively.

Therefore it is also difficult to come to any definitive conclusion about the developments of motherhood and fatherhood and why these have taken place. Family and the concepts of parenthood are very subjective issues and vary over not just time, but class, race, location and age and they are constantly changing. Religion and government might try to tell us what is the right way to parent but as we can see from many of the cases mentioned here there is no right way but that there is a need by society to recreate no matter what the means or consequences.

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